by Samantha Peaslee, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy
October 19, 2014
In mid-October 2014, North and South Korea resumed talks at Panmunjom. While the two countries are technically still at war, as they never entered into a truce after the Korean War in 1953. The two countries have proceeded through various discussions and attempts at conflict resolution throughout the years with varying levels of success. The most recent talks occurred in February 2015, when the two states reached an agreement that relatives from either country to meet each other for the first time since the Korean War. Both sides also agreed to tone down the harshness of their rhetoric when speaking about each other. In August 2015, South Korea proposed a new round of talks, hoping for another reunion visit to take place in early September for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). On October 4, 2015, high-ranking North Korean officials came for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games and agreed to resume formal high-level talks. While the talks looked momentarily like they would not proceed after North Korea fired at balloons carrying propaganda against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the talks proceeded at Panmunjom anyway.
Each set of talks between North and South Korea has increasingly important implications for international law. North Korea still does not officially recognize South Korea as an independent state, but as a part of North Korea. However, each time it treats South Korea as a state, the North weakens the strength of its claims over the South. While North Korea continues to act as if the two are not separate states in some ways (such as refusing to recognize the Northern Limit Line), engaging in high-level talks suggests that it does in fact recognize South Korea’s statehood. This could be a very important step for reconciliation between the two states.
These talks could also be interesting to the legal world because they may lead to talks about all conflict disputes and uses of force between the two states over the last several years. Note that neither North nor South Korea has accepted compulsory jurisdiction to the International Court of Justice. Therefore, any dispute resolution must come from the two states themselves or allies acting as intermediaries. The subject matter of this level of talks may range from the recent border altercations to another reunion between citizens to the lifting of the May 24 Measure, a trade sanction imposed on North Korea by South Korea in 2010. These are topics that could fall within the purview of the ICJ to mediate, but the states have instead decided to work out the consequences and remedies amongst themselves.
While history says that jumping to conclusions about the result of these talks would be unwise, as each past set of talks has failed to prevent incidents between the two states, one should not believe that these talks are useless. For each step towards reconciliation, whether that means obeying borders or lifting sanctions, the two countries fall more in line with recognized international law. For a dispute as long as the one between these two states, that is no small feat.
Samantha Peaslee is a 3L law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and Senior Managing Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.